The American Society of Cinematographers

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The Wolf of Wall Street
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Presidents Desk
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Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC and Martin Scorsese discuss their approach to The Wolf of Wall Street, the true story of a stockbrocker run amok.

Photos by Mary Cybulski, courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC recalls feeling “amazing and excited, but also a bit scared” when he first met with Martin Scorsese to discuss the possibility of shooting The Wolf of Wall Street, which is based on a bestselling book about the rise-and-fall life of Wall Street broker Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) during the 1990s. Belfort dived spectacularly into drugs, securities fraud and money laundering, and eventually ended up in jail.

With longtime collaborator Robert Richardson, ASC unavailable, Scorsese turned to Prieto because he had long admired his work, particularly Brokeback Mountain (AC Jan. ’06) and Lust, Caution (AC Oct. ’07). “In a sense, I would say Rodrigo’s lighting is more naturalistic, and his cinematography more invisible,” the director observes, corresponding with AC via email. “It has an impact on the subconscious [and] creates a kind of energy that nudges the audience in the intended direction.”

Scorsese was pleased with the results he and Richardson had attained with the Arri Alexa on the 3-D feature Hugo (AC Dec. ’11), and he had already decided to shoot Wolf digitally by the time Prieto came aboard. However, rigorous preproduction testing led the filmmakers to choose a hybrid approach. “When we started testing different digital cameras and ideas, I also shot film as a benchmark so I could understand differences in terms of latitude, color and so on,” Prieto recalls. “I shot the same images on film and on digital, and when I screened the tests for Scorsese, he kept pointing to the film versions and saying they looked better, basically noting that the skin tones were richer and there was more color nuance. So, I went to our producers to explore the financial implications of shooting on film negative and reserving digital capture for low-light situations. After looking at the comparative costs, production agreed to work with that hybrid method.”

“We did bear some additional costs carrying additional cameras along the way,” notes producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff, “but at the end of the day, we shot on the media that best served the look.”

Thus, says Scorsese, “we took advantage of both worlds, shooting most of the movie on film, and then using the Alexa for night scenes, experiments with shutter speed, and greenscreen visual effects.” The filmmakers retained the Alexa for the latter because the project had been budgeted based on a digital workflow, and visual-effects supervisor/2nd-unit director Rob Legato, ASC had already designed an Alexa-based methodology for the second-unit work and the creation of more than 400 visual-effects shots.

Legato had collaborated with Richardson on three Scorsese pictures, Hugo, Shutter Island (AC March ’10) and The Aviator (AC Jan. ’05), and says he found it stimulating “to embrace a different approach and learn something new” from Prieto. “After working with Bob Richardson for so long, I had grown to have similar sensibilities about shots and lighting, and Rodrigo has an entirely different lighting style,” he says. “That gave me an opportunity to adapt to a different way of working and seeing things, which I found intriguing. My challenge for both the visual effects and the second-unit work was to match Rodrigo’s lighting style precisely.”

For the production’s film work, which was shot on 4-perf Super 35mm, Prieto chose Arricam Lites and Kodak Vision3 250D 5207 (for day scenes) and 500T 5219 (for tungsten-lit scenes). For the digital work, he chose Arri Alexa Studio and Plus systems, capturing in ArriRaw in Log C wide gamut. 

The filmmakers’ global challenge was to figure out how to visually represent the different stages of Belfort’s story. “Rodrigo and I decided to [distinguish] the scenes where Jordan is uncertain or lost from the scenes where he has found some clarity and direction,” says Scorsese.

They decided to achieve this mainly with different optics, lighting styles and color schemes. Using Belfort’s state of mind as his guide, Prieto alternated between spherical Arri Master Primes and anamorphic Hawk V, V-Lite and V-Plus lenses to achieve different degrees of depth, perspective and clarity. Scorsese adds that Prieto also convinced him to enhance the contrast between Belfort’s states of mind by mixing in some diffusion filters, occasionally adding ambient smoke and pushing the negative.

“At the beginning of Belfort’s story, we started with a softer, slightly murky look,” Prieto explains. “He hasn’t found himself yet, and he’s still confused and awestruck by Wall Street. I used the shallow depth-of-field and slight distortion of anamorphic lenses for this first phase of his career.”

Before Belfort starts his own business, he lands his first job at the firm LF Rothschild, a set dominated by green and gold lighting that evokes “old-world wealth,” as Scorsese notes. Prieto adds, “The color scheme was inspired by a photo I found of a brokerage firm in the 1980s.” Shooting on 5207, the cinematographer used tungsten-balanced fluorescent lights and ¼ Tiffen Black Pro-Mist filters on the Hawk lenses. “For wide shots of the office space, we used the 28mm and 35mm V-Lite lenses, which curved the edges of the frame a bit, adding to the sense of instability,” he says. “This look was not as crisp or clean as the look of Belfort’s later offices, where we used a lot of white. Using daylight stock with tungsten lighting resulted in an amber coloration, and then I pushed those scenes 1 stop to add a little extra grain and contrast. The warm ambient lighting contrasts with the green graphics on all the desktop computer screens and the green LED tickertape in the office.

“When the crash of 1987 happens, LF Rothschild fails and closes, and Belfort finds himself unemployed,” Prieto continues. “He eventually finds work at an investment center as a regular employee, a job he hates. I lit that set only with light through big windows on one side, and the feeling is like a cave, a place where he sort of falls into darkness.”

Eventually, Belfort rebounds, starts his own brokerage house and achieves massive success, only to crash and lose it all. “When he figures out how to make a lot of money and becomes a success, we wanted a crisper, more pristine look — a look of greater clarity,” says Prieto. “We switched to spherical Master Primes and used them without diffusion for this section.

“Then, when he finds himself under investigation and his world unravels, we devised what I call ‘the paranoia look,’” he continues. “We switched back to Hawk anamorphics, this time using longer focal lengths to create a sense of being spied on, and for some scenes we added some ambient smoke so the backgrounds became slightly milky, with shallow depth-of-field. For those scenes, I also pushed the film stock [both 5219 and 5207, depending on the scene] 1 stop to add grain and contrast.”

First AC Zoran Veselic jokingly calls the Hawk lenses “anamorphic Master Primes” because “they have that same quality of crispness and sharpness, but with a slight anamorphic falloff. We loved their consistency. On the longer end of the primes, we started the show with a V-Lite 140mm, and then we decided to continue with a V-Plus 135mm, which we found a little bit sharper.” Prieto also used V-Lite 45mm, 55mm, 65mm, 80mm and 110mm primes; V-Plus 45-90mm and 80-180mm zooms; and a V series 180mm.


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